Are Brands Shifting to Pay-Free Fashion Show Front Rows? Not So Fast

Fashion Week front rows seats “were once a place for A-list celebs to unself-consciously mix and mingle while taking in designs from a label they genuinely liked,” writes the New York Post’s Suzanne Zuckerman. “Then the top seats became highly orchestrated corporate affairs, overrun with social media stars and reality TV mainstays desperate for fame and, often, getting paid tens of thousands of dollars to be there. This season, some designers are saying ‘enough’ with the catwalk-side circus and shifting the spotlight back to the runway.”

“It’s not about inviting a crazy amount of wacky celebrities,” a publicist for a major label told the Post. “Our focus has been on editors, buyers and friends of the brand.” This includes, at least some brands, moving away from the well-known practice of paying top-dollar to score big names in their front rows.

As the Post wrote nearly five years ago, stars were, at one point, raking in more than $100,000 in “talent” fees, airfare and free clothing in exchange for seasonal front row appearances. Much like models, the highest-paid stars – whether it be Beyoncé, Rihanna, Jennifer Lawrence, or Gwyneth Paltrow – were frequently being required to sign contracts establishing their exclusivity with a certain brand. 

Fast forward to 2018 and brands simply are not getting enough bang for their buck in paying celebs to show up. “I don’t think there is [a return on investment] anymore,” one unnamed veteran publicist told the Post. Alice Ryan, former public relations director at Oscar de la Renta, echoed this notion, saying that the paid-for celebrity “formula failed. Everybody knows what a front row looks like when it’s been cast and paid for.”

It is worth noting that LaunchMetrics’ review of the Spring/Summer 2018 season showed that certain celebrities still have power. Nicki Minaj, for instance, helped generate significant engagement and added value for several brands such as Oscar de la Renta, Monse, Marc Jacobs, Philipp Plein and Paul Andrew. Her presence at these shows led to a large leap in engagement numbers. For Oscar de la Renta, for example, her posts during the show generated over 7 million interactions.

During the S/S 2018 show season, Kim Kardashian proved an effective front-row guest, of course (two of her Instagram posts garnered 57K comments and 3.4M likes collectively), as did Selena Gomez. The singer/actress uploaded a video on her Instagram account that featured Coach, garnering over 33,000 comments and 3 million likes during New York Fashion Week, alone; the number of "likes" went up to over 16 million thereafter.

And this brings us to the reason celebrities will continue to be paid – even explicitly – to attend runway shows: Brand ambassadorships.

Yes, while ambassadors’ duties typically include appearances in a brand’s ad campaigns, they also tend to the individuals to participate in the brand’s major events, or show off the brand’s wares at major appearances. Consider Paris-based brand Louis Vuitton’s roster of stars, which includes actresses Léa Seydoux, Alicia Vikander, Jennifer Connelly, Michelle Williams, and Doona Bae, among others. Alicia Vikander, for one, joined the ranks of Louis Vuitton’s famous faces in the summer of 2015.

These stars are typically in attendance at the brands’ runway shows, just as Louis Vuitton ambassador-turned-Coach ambassador Selena Gomez is on hand at the New York-based brands’ events.

While fashion brands may be increasingly opting out of paying stars outright to sit in their front rows (and instead, opting to welcome their contractually-obligated faces and unpaid famous fans, instead), that does not mean they are not paying other attention-drawers: Buzzy Insta-models to walk in their shows. Models, such as Gigi and Bella Hadid, Kendall Jenner, Kaia Geber, and Taylor Hill are some of the figures that drive fashion month social media engagements even more than many of the more traditional celebrities, and come with significantly cheaper price tags.  

As LaunchMetrics noted after the Spring/Summer 2018 shows in September and October, the 19 NYFW posts by Gigi and Bella Hadid caused more than 11 million interactions. Gigi, who hit the runway for her third collection with Tommy Hilfiger, created a total of nine posts related to the brand. These alone generated over four million interactions. Similar results occurred in Milan when Bella posted six times, generating three million plus interactions and $1 million in estimated media impact value, distributed mainly amongst Max Mara, Alberta Ferretti, Fendi and Moschino.

So, is this really a shift? Technically, yes, but it is not likely because brands are harkening back to the “old-school fashion-show style,” as one major label representative told the Post. It is much more likely that they have identified and begun utilizing smarter ways to spend in 2018 when Instagram rules the fashion world.

With that in mind, the question becomes: Does this mean that brands are no longer paying for buzz? And that answer is a surefire, no. They are still paying up.

(And when it comes to editors, do not forget that they routinely have their trips and accommodations paid for by brands in connection with pre-season and couture shows. You can read all about that right here).